Regulatory robophobia: we don't need a federal commission to govern things that go beep in the night.

Author:de Rugy, Veronique
Position:Columns - Column

The future is here. Driverless vehicles, drones, machine learning, and other emerging technologies offer programmable assistants able to handle mundane tasks and critical life-saving interventions alike. But not everyone is pleased. The digital Arcadia that awaits us is being fettered by the rise of the robophobes.

Robophobia exists on a continuum. At the extreme end are reactionaries who indiscriminately look to stifle all that goes beep in the night. They call for swift and pre-emptive regulations to address any imagined safety or privacy concerns, however unlikely. To the extent that they can enact their ideas, their mind-set is guaranteed to slow the pace of innovation, resulting in countless lost opportunities for economic and social progress--and, yes, even consumer safety and privacy. You'd almost suspect that this is their unstated goal.

Other cases of robophobia are milder, manifesting, for instance, in proposals for new government agencies. In a white paper published by the Brookings Institution last September, Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, calls for a Federal Robotics Commission (FRC). Older agencies, he argues, don't have the expertise to "deal with the novel experiences and harms robotics enables." Furthermore, there are "distinct but related challenges that would benefit from being examined and treated together." Robots, he says, "may require investment and coordination to thrive."

Calo does not have a surreptitious desire to stifle new technologies hidden behind his policy proposals. He rightfully criticizes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for its ham-handed drone policies, calling them "arbitrary and non-transparent." But Calo is no proponent of permissionless innovation, a term for totally unfettered freedom to experiment with new technology and business models coined by my technology policy colleague at the Mercatus Center Adam Thierer, either. He wants to regulate drones; he just thinks the FAA is doing it the wrong way. In his mind, a FRC would have the narrow focus and specialized expertise needed to effectively protect us.

Really, Calo is too kind to the FAA. He doesn't mention most of the questionable drone regulations the agency has proposed. The FAA has practically stopped innovation in its flight path by proposing to ban all but a handful of private-sector drones while the agency completes rules to govern the rest. Another doozy was its proposal to...

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